Hungary set to elect former Communists

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The Independent Online
HUNGARY'S former Communists are poised to return to power after parliamentary elections tomorrow, confirming a trend in Eastern Europe that began in Lithuania in November 1992 and gathered pace in Poland last September.

Opinion polls published before the elections, which involve a run- off round on 29 May, show the Hungarian Socialist Party (HSP) scoring between 31 and 38 per cent. The Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF), the main party in the centre-right coalition government, is trailing at 11 per cent.

The polls may be deceptive in that they reflect voter preferences for national party lists that will account for only 152 seats in the 386- seat parliament. Races in individual districts, where the HDF is expected to perform more strongly, will decide 176 seats, while the remaining 58 seats will be awarded to parties according to votes cast for candidates who do not win individual races.

Nevertheless few dispute that the Socialists will benefit from the government's unpopularity, and the reasons are broadly the same as those which produced victories for the left in Lithuania and Poland. Four years of economic reform have failed to bring sufficient prosperity to persuade voters that the pain has been a price worth paying.

Unemployment has risen to 12.2 per cent of the workforce, and inflation, though slowing, runs at 17 per cent. Living standards, especially for state employees and pensioners, have fallen as the economy's output has shrunk by one fifth since 1990.

In fact, life is brighter than the statistics suggest, since there is a thriving black economy that is estimated to make up almost a quarter of Hungary's gross domestic product. But many Hungarians still recall with nostalgia the years of the late Communist leader, Janos Kadar, when full employment, low prices and a broad social security net disguised the fact that the economy was slipping into crisis.

As in Poland, Hungary's first post-Communist rulers have suffered from prolonged internal quarrels that have allowed the Socialists to project an image of cohesion and professionalism.

A Socialist election poster shows the party leader, Gyula Horn, next to the slogan: 'Let the experts govern.' The HDF has tried to make much of the fact that Mr Horn, Hungary's last foreign minister in the Communist period, belonged to a militia unit that helped crush the 1956 uprising.

But the dire warnings of a Communist restoration leave most Hungarians unconvinced. The Socialists abandoned Communist ideology in 1989 and believe that the HDF's strident attacks actually increase public sympathy for their party. Even supporters of the HSP concede, however, that many former Communist apparatchiks still hold leading positions in the party. Many former members of the Communist apparatus have maintained client-patron relationships across Hungary.

The Socialist campaign received a serious setback late on Thursday night when Mr Horn was involved in a car crash, causing severe concussion, a damaged neck vertebra and a broken wrist. He is likely to stay in hospital for several days, but he should be fit for the second round of voting.

If Hungarians expect a Socialist victory to bring a rapid increase in living standards, they will almost certainly be disappointed. Laszlo Bekesi, the HSP's economic expert, has warned his own party not to make unrealistic promises about extra social expenditures. 'On the contrary, in the short run we can expect further cuts,' he said.

The Socialists have signed an electoral pact with the National Association of Hungarian Trade Unions, which has at least one million members and is by far the country's largest labour movement. Other parties have attacked the agreement on the grounds that a Socialist-led government will be vulnerable to union pressure, and tempted to slow down economic reform.

The trade union leader, Sandor Nagy, has been given the second position on the HSP's national list, below Mr Horn but above Mr Bekesi. If the Socialists win and Mr Bekesi becomes finance minister, his preference for fiscal austerity could provoke a clash with Mr Nagy and the unions.

On foreign policy and security issues, there are subtle differences between the parties. Like its rivals, the HSP supports Hungarian membership of the EU and Nato, but it is closer than its opponents to Russia's view that either all former Warsaw Pact countries should join Nato, or none should. The HSP is committed to holding a referendum on Nato membership if elected.

(Photograph omitted)